The Biggest Loser Is Organized Fat-Shaming, So How Is It Still on TV?

Photo: Brandon Hickman/NBC

Can you believe that we’ve had 17 seasons of The Biggest Loser so far? This is a show where someone can lose ten pounds in a single week and still get voted off the ranch. Other weight-loss-competition shows have come and gone, but somehow this one remains — though not without controversy.  

Surely, some people enjoy watching others transform their bodies and lives and regain self-confidence, but the problem is that we’re not seeing what happens when contestants try to resume their lives and maintain a restricted diet and daunting workout schedule on their own. The show’s current design suggests that the participants walk off into the sunset, forever changed and never to gain another pound.

The Biggest Loser befits this historical view of obesity that people are overweight because they eat too much and they don’t exercise,” says W. Scott Butsch, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a physician at the Weight Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “So all you have to do is get people to exercise more, like seven hours a day or something ridiculous, and then eat like 1,000 calories a day, and you should be fine.”

But we know that it doesn’t work that way. Dr. Butsch says that one of the prevailing ideas about diets right now is that they’re not drastically different from each other, and in order to keep weight off, people just have to adhere to them. You know, exhibit some discipline for a change.

“What does that mean to most people? It means that they have to behave,” he says. “It gets back to this view of obesity as a behavioral problem, as a character flaw or a lifestyle choice, whereas we know it’s this more biological dysfunction of a tightly regulated system.”

The show may be inspirational to some, but it’s also an opportunity for people to get perverse satisfaction out of watching lazy fatties actually work out.

“I almost think the show is some sick way of just mocking people who have obesity,” Dr. Butsch says. “It has this guise of benefit but you can see the sort of sinister in it as well. I don’t think it’s there, but it ends up looking that way.”

But then again, would anyone watch a show that consists of people visiting their doctor, grocery shopping and cooking, and doing lots of cardio before picking up a kettlebell? Probably not.

Fewer people than ever are watching the show as it is. Season 17 consisted of just eight episodes (versus 12 to 18 in previous seasons) and had a 1.06 rating in the key 18 to 49 demographic. In 2013, the rating was 2.3 and it has fallen steadily since. In 2014, it was 1.93, then dropped to 1.2 in 2015. Notably, the 2014 winner, Rachel Frederickson, lost 60 percent of her body weight and drew stunned looks from trainers Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. Viewers were not pleased and Michaels left the show a few months later.

Broadcast upfronts are this week, and while NBC has not said whether the show will be renewed, the Washington Post speculates that it will be. May we suggest a new format that, at the very least, follows the contestants as they work to keep the weight off, too? That would truly be reality TV.

How Is The Biggest Loser Still on TV?